Karen Brodkin, anthropologist, is part of a historic transformation of anthropological practice. She, along with a cohort of other female anthropologists, brought the insights of the women’s movement into the classrooms and lecture halls of the university. Building from political study circles and action groups she was among a generation who understood that commitment was more than a word, it was an act.
My first encounter with Karen Brodkin was through chapter, “Engels Revisited” published in the celebrated book, Women Culture and Society, about fifteen years after it was written. By the time I was reading Brodkin’s work as an undergrad the terrain of anthropological research had already been transformed. However, the intense political struggles that Brodkin and her colleagues had been engaged in had been sidelined in the mainstream discipline by an easier textual struggle in which how one wrote was considered as (if not more) important than what one wrote. For those of us coming from working class and colonized social worlds, however, we found inspiration in the writing of people like Brodkin.
I have found two articles of particular help in my own thinking about doing anthropology that pays attention to social class. Toward a Unified Theory of Class, Race, and Gender (AE 1989) is a clear statement of Brodkin’s socialist feminism. This paper helps us think through the ways in which social class is not innocent of social categories like race and gender, but how those concepts are integral to making sense of class. Her paper Women, Work, and Karl Marx (AWR 1998) provides a critical overview of how an earlier anthropology of women and work “helped develop a coherent research agenda within anthropology: it attends to the ways and sites at which people resist global capitalism, to what works and what does not, the relationship between the cultural constructions of identity and how, when and in what ways they do and do not work for mobilizing social change.”
Early in my appointment at UBC I was able to get funding for a research conference that allowed me to bring in a host of academics that I admired. Karen Brodkin was on that list. Other well established progressive scholars also invited included: Gerald Sider, Gavin Smith, Brigit O’Laughlin, and Deborah Fink. It was a three day event in which all we did was talk about issues of gender, race and their intersection with social class.
For close to four decades Karen Brodkin combined community-centered social activism with exemplary scholarship that highlighted women, work, and the possibilities of a better world. During the decades of navel gazing scholar-activists like Brodkin kept the pressure on. Today, as we turn back toward engaged scholarship, Brodkin’s work is even more important then when she wrote it.
Some Other Online Sources
An interview with the Savageminds Blog.
Finding aid for some of Karen Brodkin’s research materials
Oral history interview with Karen Brodkin (click and scroll to the bottom of the list)
Books by Karen Brodkin
2009: Power Politics: Environmentalism in South Los Angeles. Rutgers University Press (Youtube video of book talk)
2007: Making Democracy Matter: Identity and Activism in Los Angeles. Rutgers University Press.
1998: How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America. Rutgers University Press. (Honorable Mention, 1999 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award).
1988 Caring By The Hour: Women, Work And Organizing At Duke MedicalCenter. University of Illinois Press(Conrad Arensberg Award, Society for the Anthropology of Work and Honorable Mention Staley Prize in Anthropology)
1984 My Troubles Are Going To Have Trouble With Me. co edited with D. Remy.New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
1979 Sisters And Wives: The Past And Future Of Sexual Equality. Westport: Greenwood